"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why Go To Church?

Father Brophy adjusted the tassels on his cassock, shot his full, white silk cuffs, folded his hands in prayer and supplication, and began to speak.  “Brethren, we are gathered here together to share in the hope of that redemption promised to us by Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  For you, my sinners, need His redemption.” He looked out over the congregation.  Mothers whispered to their sons to sit up straight and told their daughters to stop fidgeting.

“Satanic hellfire awaits you who are living lives of sinful neglect, venal self-absorption, and selfish carnal pleasures…” Again he paused, and said, “I know who you are.”  He looked directly at those members of the parish who were known moral reprobates, wayward husbands, and drunkards.  The congregation stirred uncomfortably.  “Who does he mean?”, they all wondered.  “Is he talking about me?”.

After an intolerably long pause, the priest continued.  “I know who you are because you all are sinners, every last one of you; and you will all feel the licking fires of eternal damnation unless you mend your ways.”

He went on like this for twenty minutes, lashing out against sin and spiritual indifference, whipping his congregation like an Avenging Angel, a Christian Simon Legree who knew he was causing pain but that the pain was necessary to right wrongs, to open the gates of heaven to all.

I remember that we all felt holy and sanctified after Father Brophy’s brutal sermon and Holy Communion.  Taking the flesh and blood of the Lord after being threatened with the sulfurous caverns of Hell was spiritual bliss.  We had made it another week, and were in a state of grace.  It was a perfect Catholic trifecta – Confession, Father Brophy’s harangues, and the Holy Eucharist.

It was at least an hour before my mother started in on my sister for spilling milk on her Sunday finest; before my father began to get after me for my room, my slouch, and my disobedience; and before my parents started whanging away at each other.  I always knew that it wouldn’t last.  The famous State of Grace had a very short shelf life.

Despite Father Brophy’s fevered sermons, Father Murphy’s whisky-breath inquiries in the confessional, and the misandry of the Sisters of the Little Flower who still wore medieval habits with starched blinders and bibs, long black robes, and great strings of rosary beads and who were the most intimidating and frightening of all of Christ’s soldiers, we were all good Catholics. We took the basic teachings of the Church to heart and tried to keep the Ten Commandments. Trying was enough, we were told, because Jesus was a very forgiving God.  Admission of sin, penance, and the promise to reform were enough for Him.  While there were those who saw this Christian generosity as an easy scam – i.e. sin during the week, make a good Act of Contrition on Saturday, get cleansed and purified on Sunday, and then suck it up for another fun week – most of us took it all seriously and tried to walk the straight and narrow.

Christ’s promises were false, manipulative, and destructive, the Grand Inquisitor tells the returned Christ in The Brothers Karamazov.  Men only want bread to eat, not the promise of eternal salvation; and You cheated them, deprived them of the very immediate solace they wanted.  Worst of all, You enabled the creation of a venal, autocratic church which, as the self-anointed intermediary between it and Yourself, took advantage of us poor souls, robbed of us our meager savings, and grew to an international empire.

Ivan Karamazov tells his younger brother Alyosha that the most punishing and imprisoning idea this venal and self-serving church ever professed was immortality; for to attain it, one had to follow the orders and directions of the Church and its priests. Not only did the promise of immortality guarantee longevity for the Church, but served to keep the faithful in line and orderly.  “There is no morality without immortality”, said Ivan; and what better for a ruling church than a docile, complaisant, and endlessly thankful community of believers.

While all this may be true, The Grand Inquisitor ignored one thing.  Without the Church and its inflexible doctrines of faith and morals, and without this hope of immortality, life would be chaos.  The Church, whatever its motives, has always served as an arbiter of right and wrong, necessary for a race of people who have always had trouble distinguishing between the two.

“Another treachery”, shouts the Grand Inquisitor. Your vaunted free will, the ability to choose You over the Devil, means nothing to the poor peasant barely surviving on the steppes. He wants to be told what to do, and is happier in his ignorance than in his freedom.

I remember how John Paul II was vilified by many for his unwavering stance on abortion.  He said absolutely and unequivocally that it was wrong.  It was taking a life, taking it summarily and for expediency, and was for all those reasons a most heinous and unforgivable sin.  He knew that the social tide was turning towards a more practical resolution to moral problems; that the movement for women’s rights was gaining momentum, and that the rights to contraception and abortion were central to it. By not accommodating these rational but insistently secular arguments, he would maintain the right direction of the moral compass.  I know that you may not follow my teachings, but I want you at least to think about them, he was saying.

In other words the Church, through its rock-ribbed absolutist positions on faith and morals has done the rest of us a service, because as far as we may stray, we cannot ignore what it says.  There are few people who consider abortion no worse than removing a wart.  We all understand that we might in fact be taking a life.  When a latter-day Father Brophy bangs on about infidelity, only the very few yawn and ignore him.  The rest of us know that of course he is right.  Cheating, lying, and dishonesty are not good things at all; and despite sexual liberation, they always lead to no good.  Every man headed off for a cinq à sept with his paramour thinks, if only obliquely and for a second, about the moral implications of his infidelity.

As much as Ivan Karamazov creates a character – The Grand Inquisitor – who despises Christ for his duplicity and false promises, he argues for the indissoluble union of Church and State. Ivan explains that he does not believe in the separation of the church and state. He believes that the church should subsume the state, so that religious authorities administer laws, and ecclesiastical courts handle the judicial process. Father Zosima agrees with Ivan’s analysis. He argues that the only real power capable of punishing crime is conscience which Ivan knows is a construct that comes from the Church.

In other words, society ruled by moral law should always supersede one ruled only by a secular one.  Ivan is being provocative, of course, but his point is that despite its ecclesiastical failings, the church does indeed have an important role to play in human society.

In an anonymously-written article in The Atlantic (August 1910) the author summarizes the argument for a dominant, inflexible, and authoritarian Church:

If you take a child and repeat again and again, continually, certain statements, they are likely in time to assume the form of truth to him. The constant demand of the Roman Catholic Church that it be permitted to supervise the instruction of its children is witness of this, It knows very well that certain processes of thought may become fixed so that they abide in many well-ordered minds as final conclusions, and that it is then difficult to disturb them. It is, therefore, far easier and more profitable in results to make converts of children and hold them to this habit of thought than to persuade adults that any branch of organized Christianity is the True Faith… This automatic connection is the basis of faith…

The author disagrees, however, insisting that an adult search for truth should never be stifled and opposing arguments muted.  The Church has done exactly as The Grand Inquisitor charged, and this is wrong.

Ivan Karamazov continues the Inquisitor’s argument with his brother, Alyosha, saying that men need institutions to guide them.  Christ’s assumption that an individual, armed only with free will and human intelligence, can survive well in a challenging and competitive world, is nonsense.  He needs structure, discipline, and order, says Ivan.

As faithless as I may be, I understand and respect the role of the church in society.  I agree with The Grand Inquisitor’s charges against Christ and His Church; but I also agree with Ivan that the Church is all that holds us together as a society.

There is no doubt that churches have been responsible for a lot of bad things.  The Catholic Church alone is guilty of not only child abuse, but the unconscionable preying of respected priests to whom children defer, reprehensible behavior bar none.  Fundamentalist preachers are frequently outed as charlatans, adulterers, and crooks.  Islam is in everyone’s gun sights for contributing to Islamic extremism.  Nevertheless, where would we be without Christianity, Islam, and all the rest?  Lear was right. “ Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal”. We all need to be accommodated, taken in, given shelter and support.

I don’t go to church, but I am glad it is there.

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